Havana, Cuba 2003

My paternal grandmother, Mardi Blun Bowden, was an amateur genealogist and did immense research over 40-some odd years, digging into our family’s history.

As a kid, I remember thick collections of archives, newspaper cuttings and framed photos of ancestors during our weekly Saturday morning visits, but I most remember a big, black book filled with faded images next to groupings of elaborate, handwritten notes.

After smiley-faced eggs and toast, she sat with us in the living room and brought many of our family’s black-and-white images to life with vivid story-telling and such excitement that the characters jumped into real time in our young, little minds.

But it wasn’t until after my grandmother passed away a few years ago and my aunt asked if I would help put a number of the ancestral records onto discs for the family, that I realized that one of the world’s most beloved modern-day love stories, famously recounted by James Cameron on the big screen, is one of our own.

She must have shared it with me as a child, but I sat clueless watching “Titanic” many years ago, unaware that original images of Ida and Isidor Straus, the older couple who refused to part ways as the ship sunk, were firmly glued into my grandmother’s black book.

Isidor and Ida Straus

Ida was a Blun, my grandmother’s cousin, by way of her father, and a German immigrant, like Isidor. As children, they both moved to Georgia and later to New York where they found one another in a simple boy-meets girl scenario, though they grew to be inseparable. Even when Isidor became successful as co-owner of Macy’s and later a Congressman, it was widely known among friends and family that his greatest commitment was to Ida. They adored one another, were rarely apart during their 40-year marriage and wrote letters daily when they were.

As witnessed by various survivors of the Titanic disaster, Isidor begged Ida to go on lifeboat 8. She refused, saying, “We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go.”

They were last seen standing arm-in-arm on the boat’s deck.

“A Sublime Sacrifice,” wrote the New York Times. “Mrs. Straus refused to quit husband,” announced the rest of the world.

More than a century later their story still holds the admiration of folklore and it’s not because it was thrown into a movie script.  It’s because real sacrifice doesn’t pop in the door everyday.  

As I reread details of their beautiful partnership, I couldn’t help but look inward at my own as Luis and I recently celebrated 11 years together.  From both their experience and ours, what I walk away with is this: sacrifice comes in many forms and the only way it shows its face in the presence of love.

For many on the outside looking in, Luis and I were never going to make it when we shared news of our engagement in 2002. We were, after all, an impossible situation.

Luis was born and raised in a communist country, didn’t speak English and had never been to the United States. He knew things about life that I could never have imagined as a kid – or an adult – growing up in a quiet, suburban town in Georgia, idyllic and carefree.

Our connection, face to face, defied logic, but we understood one another in the most basic, instinctive and powerful way and the blinding euphoria we experienced falling head over heels in a Caribbean setting was fairy tale. In place of setbacks, our cultural differences were intriguing, like little puzzles we were both eager to unlock.

Yet surrounding circumstances, out of our control, were tough and for me, often veiled in fear as an American on Cuban soil who didn’t understand the communist playbook. 

Logistically, hurdle number one was travel to Cuba with the U.S. embargo in place since 1960, making it tricky for me to get on and off the island at all. Going there wasn’t illegal, but spending money was unless I could locate an authorized visa. I secured myself under the auspices of a humanitarian group various times, but the U.S. started to clamp down on opportunities fast and furiously, as the hatred between Fidel Castro and President Bush, Jr. grew, pushing into something personal, far beyond politics.

One morning I woke up to Fidel’s voice over a loud speaker just outside my window. He was on a stage in Plaza Marti, on the other side of Luis’ front balcony and by no mistake, directly in front of the U.S. consulate, which is housed inside the Swiss embassy. Flags, strategically placed to block streaming messages about freedom of speech on the building’s outside wall, stood tall and in the center of masses on the street and soldiers on rooftops, Castro blasted Bush, who had just thrown him on a Top 10 terrorist list, lines below Bin Laden. Curled in bed, I imagined Fidel’s finger pointed to the sky, as I had so often seen on T.V., and strained to understand the echoes of anger. It felt slightly like he was yelling at me, one of only a few Americans in Havana.

Around town, city billboards mocked Bush (i.e. Americans) in blunt, 3-D force and threats to close the U.S. consulate came from both sides, making our ongoing wait for a U.S. fiancé visa, allowing Luis to move here, unbearable. We needed an open office for a required exit interview if and when the visa, sitting somewhere in Kansas and Vermont purgatory, was ever approved. 

In the meantime, my increased exposure to Cuba’s control sets were unnerving – the block patrols who know the comings and goings of all, security who wavered on whether or not to take a rolled New York Times from my bag before I left the airport, the whispers about Castro’s hand in Che Guevara’s murder in Bolivia because saying anything outright could land you in jail or worse.  Every time I reached Luis at the exit in the dozen-and-a-half times I visited the island,  I was shaking equally in excitement and rattled nerves.

The presence of rules circling Cuban citizens at that time, many of which have relaxed today under current president, Raúl Castro, versus those of foreigners was always confusing and I couldn’t grasp what was allowed and what wasn’t. Such as cab rides and cars: Luis often sat in the front seat and I in the back, our fingers laced between aisles, like a secret. Many times we did ride in a family car he used as his own, but one afternoon, I discovered the risk in doing so.

Coasting over a speed bump in Havana, a police siren brought us to a stop in a residential neighborhood. The officer asked Luis to step out of the car and go across the street where two more policemen stood. Lunch shot to my throat. What was happening? Two of my best friends had traveled to Cuba to meet my husband-to-be and sat in the backseat, but not a sound moved between the three of us, virtual stones in terror.

The officer, fitted with a large gun on his hip, came around to my open window and started drilling questions: How much was I paying the young man to drive? I panicked, played dumb and pretended not to speak Spanish. But I think he sensed I did, driving further questions to me alone: How much gas had I put in his car? Where were we going? Were we staying at the young man’s house and at what cost?  I played the same routine, but he wasn’t buying it and my hands were dripping.

Finally, Luis shot across the street and told me it was okay to tell the officer the truth. Hesitantly, I explained in Spanish that Luis and I were engaged, showing the ring on my finger to prove it. My friends and I were all guests at his home.

After a brief exchange between Luis and the officer, he hopped back in the car and we drove off, but the experience stuck.

It was all so nuts. My existence between two orbits, the kamikaze, three-day trips and the cultural whiplash of returning home.  Costs piled with plane tickets, visa requirements and nightly phone calls, an hour plus at a dollar a minute. Luis and I were on a constant scramble to fund all and to keep our spirits up.

Our bright light in the midst of all was our wedding ceremony, not legally binding, but it is the anniversary we celebrate today.  Most importantly, a close group of 80 Cubans and 20 Americans joined us in a hopeful and happy event.

Finally, more than two years after we first filed for Luis’ visa and one year after we married, he was able to buy a ticket bound for Miami. 

Over the years, many have commented to me that Luis must have been overjoyed arriving in the U.S., touching on the American Dream.  I understand the assumption, but it’s not that simple.

We were ecstatic to be together and to have the opportunity to make a future, but the American Dream doesn’t settle with you when you land on U.S. soil. It’s something you work extraordinarily hard for, you cry for, you miss your family and your culture for while trying to figure out how to function in new surroundings. I refer to Luis’ first year here as a black hole. 

Luis gave up everything he knew at 27-years-old, sight unseen, culture unknown, for me and wasn’t allowed to leave the U.S. to see his mom or his first born for three years while he waited for a Green card. It’s a brutal expectation of an immigrant.

We may not have made the ultimate sacrifice for one another like my distant cousins, Ida and Isidor, but ours were hefty and very real. Though, like them, neither of us was ever willing to quit on the other.

And as for the traditional 11thanniversary gift of steel, which represents strength, there wasn’t much need for an exchange. After all we went through, I’m pretty sure we’re partially made of it by now.


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